WINTER PHOTOGRAPHY IN THE YUKON
Yukon ; CANADA
The two-roomed log cabin in which my wife and I are spending the winter nestles
back in the spruce trees on the bank of the half-mile-wide Yukon River about
sixty miles north of Dawson City; this distance measured, not in an air line,
but as the dog-team travels. This temporary home of ours which measures approximately
20 x 10 feet inside, has not only been a very comfortable place to eat and
sleep, but it has also been a storehouse for a six-month's outfit of food and
clothing, and believe it or not I have managed to find space enough to do a
little photography of sorts. I am sure that many of you kitchen- and bath-room
photographic enthusiasts will not be envious of me. But in spite of limited
space and a few other minor handicaps I have succeeded in having plenty of
fun during the past five months.
When we arrived here late last September the cabin consisted of one room only;
two trappers had used it the previous winter. I could see at once that with
our winter's outfit, most of which would have to be stored inside to prevent
it from freezing, any photographic work would be out of the question. I spent
the next two weeks cutting logs and building on an addition measuring roughly
9 feet square. Along one wall of this small room are shel ves for our supplies;
along another is a folding camp bed and tiny stove; the rest has been used
to store my photographic equipment and to do my printing etc. Not ideal quarters
by any means, but at least I could do something, though I can assure you that
a printing 'session' is quite an event and involves no little preparation.
Those of you who have to use the kitchen or family bath-room as a temporary
workroom do at least have the advantage of plenty of water, but it is not quite
such a simple matter with me here. F or our Scènes domestiques -and photographic - use
since last November I have had to cut ice from a slough, carry it in buckets
up a 25-foot high steep bank and back along the trail for another fifty yards
to the cabin, where of course it has to be melted - in itself no mean job.
Perhaps I may be excused if I don't always give my prints the recommended 'ten
or twelve changes of water'.
Then too there is the matter of light for indoor work. Two-way sockets, light
switches, spare lengths of cord, photo-floods and red bulbs - all these are
unknown quantities back here in the bush sixty miles from the nearest
Power Station. For all Scènes domestiques use our usual light here is a two-mantle lamp.
This burns gasoline under pressure and gives a very bright white light and
although I haven't the faintest idea of its candle-power, it gives much satisfaction.
On printing nights I usually commandeer this lamp while the other half of our
family has to be content with a mere kerosene lamp for darning sox or other
such unimportant issues. I have converted an empty gasoline case into a crude
printing-box keeping out extraneous light by pinning my focussing [sic] cloth
over open side. Exposures will vary of course but an average negative will
require from three to five seconds at a distance of about eight inches from
the light. No fancy gadgets about this outfit - but it works.
When my quarter-plate horizontal enlarger is not in use, I keep it under the
bed - well out of the way of course. I almost decided not to bring this along
with me this winter as I didn't know what to do about a light for it. I have
tried acetylene, but was always more or less afraid of the blamed stuff, and
there seemed to be no other suitable light available. Then I got an idea from
a photographic magazine that it was possible to use a 6-volt battery with a
bulb from an auto head-lamp. But I had no such battery, there was no car within
sixty miles. I did however, unearth 4 1 ½ volt batteries that I had
been using on an old telegraphic key. But the bulb: What to do? Then I remembered
that I had once, years before, used such a bulb in an ancient model of a 16
mm movie- projector. And - I found it. Now, I have about as much general knowledge
of electricity as the average Yukon Indian has of Tibet but after many anxious
moments I finally got that bulb connected to those batteries, and my enlarger
now really works. I'll have to admit that a dense negative does require some
trouble in focussing 'blowing up' an average negative to 5 x 7 or even to 3
x 10 doesn't take more than, say, 30 seconds to perhaps 2 minutes.
But w e're not in so much of a hurry up here usually, so what does it matter?
And although I haven't succeeded in turning out any Salon-quality prints yet,
some of my results have given us and our friends much pleasure, while the odd
one has even pleased an editor - occasionally.
Then too there is the ever-present trouble with dust, thou gh judging from
what I read this is not a trouble peculiar to this part of the country. I have
overcome this to a great extent in my enlarging. The negatives in my enlarger
were carried between two glasses. This meant that there were six surfaces to
be kept free of lint and dust, a feat which seemed utterly impossible. But
in the course of my reading I came across an item that has helped me a lot.
( Great things, photographic magazines, aren't they?) I have now discarded
the two glasses entirely - almost. I cut out a mask from stout cardboard with
a frame about 1/4 inch wide to fit snugly into the rebate of my carrier. This
is placed over the negative and kept firmly in place by means of the turn-buttons
in carrier. Simple, isn't it? As I use cut-film almost exclusively I have no
trouble with the film buckling. If I use film-pack occasionally then I use
one glass only to keep the film perfectly flat.
Outdoor photography during the three months November to January is practically
at a standstill. Remember that I am but little more than a hundred miles south
of the Arctic Circle . There is very little sun and these are our coldest months.
I ma de my last outdoor exposure in 1938 about the 15th of November when the
sun was just peeping for half an hour daily above a range of hills to the south.
On February l0th the thermometer registered 54 below zero. For at least two
weeks previously I had been making firm resolutions to get out and 'shoot'
a few snow scenes around the cabin, but not a shot was fired. But what can
be done in such temperatures? Not very much. Of course it isn't always
that cold but even with temperatures much less severe it is still decidedly
uncomfortable. Merely to set up a tripod in three feet of snow and get it perfectly
level is in itself quite a feat. Then to fiddle around with a focussing screw,
adjust the diaphragm, set the timing device, remove focussing screen and insert
a plate-holder, fix a filter and lens hood; all this even at a modest twenty-five
below zero is no picnic, especially as it must be done bare-handed. It just
can't be done with a pair of heavy bundlesome lined skin mitts on; I've tried
it many a time and I know. But suppose it is done eventually, in relays as
it were, probably by that time the sun has disappeared behind a passing cloud;
and what is a snow picture without sun? not much, usually; or at least mine
aren't. But from February onwards until the end of April, temperatures are
less severe - even pleasant at times, and it is usually easy to work bare-handed.
Exposures may be very short as the sun rapidly gains in power and the snow-covered
landscape acts as a wonderful reflector. Practically every shot will then demand
the use of a filter and lens hood. I use principally a Kl and my hood is a
home-made affair constructed from a piece of cardboard covered inside and out
with black insulating tape, and encircles the lens completely; it cost me nothing
and carried with the filter in a small tin box, it bas been in use for years.
Strange though it may seem good snow-scenes are not easy to get up here, though
we have snow from November to April. Perhaps we get a nice fall of snow and
there seems to be almost endless possibilities; but we can't do it to-day,
there's no sun; we'll wait until tomorrow, - first thing. Fine! But alas for
our good resolutions; during the night a real man-size wind springs up and--
b ut why continue? And so it goes usually. It is only on a rare occasion that
we get the happy and necessary combination of good sunshine and freshly-fallen
snow. But of course there are other subjects. Shots of animal tracks in the
snow make interesting souvenirs of the country; moose and caribou, wolf and
coyote, rabbits, mice, squirrel, lynx and weasel are the common animals up
here in the winter. Birds are rare now though the Northern raven, Canada jay
(whiskey-jack), and the tiny chickadee and red-polled linnet are here all winter,
with the snowbird in the early spring. Photographs of human activities are
not easy to get, at least not in this vicinity) for the very simple reason
that there are so few humans. Our nearest neighbour is ten miles away, and
he is a hard man to catch as he is usually away from home on his trap-line.
We get our ma il here twice monthly; it comes down from Dawson City by dog-team,
and the carrier passes along the river about 400 yards from our cabin. I felt
sure, a month a go , that it would be an easy matter to get a couple of good
interesting shots of him with his seven or eight dogs strung out, but I haven't
got them yet. Twice when he pa ssed, the mercury was hiding in the bottom of
the tube, painfully near the 50-below mark; and again it was snowing and blowing
cheerlessly, and I didn't even see him go by. Not to be outdone however, I
thought I'd try again. On his last upward trip it looked as though it was going
to be a nice clear day. About two miles above here, the trail leaves the river
and follows a portage, and I thought a couple of shots of him pulling up the
steep river bank would be a little out of the ordinary - if I could get them.
So into the inevitable pack-sack I loaded camera, tripod, films and filter,
together with a lunch and the Yukoner's tea-pail - a discarded lard-can - and
axe. Why axe? Just a moment and I'll tell you. Then slipping on a pair of snow-shoes
I set out expectantly. I wasn't sure as to the exact time he'd be along of
course, but what's an hour or two anyway? I landed up there in plenty of time
and gave the ground the ‘once-over' to discover which would be the best angle.
This didn't take long, and after a few anxious looks down the trail, I began
to lose a little heat, and what was more important it was past my usual lunch
hour. So - and here's where my axe comes in - I found a sheltered spot, cut
some dry wood, built a fire, melted some snow, made tea and had lunch, making
a hurried run out to the bank occasionally to see if I could see anything of
the familiar dog-team. I had almost given up hope that he was coming that day
at all when out of the stillness I heard him yelling at his dogs. Yes, believe
it or not, I heard him even before I saw him, and I could see down the two
mile straight too at that. ( Great voices these Yukon dog-drivers have!) I
got three shots after he arrived; Though the light was not as brilliant as
I might have wished, the meter gave me 1/250 at f8 using a Scheiner rating
of 23 for my film. I gave 1/100 to make sure that the figures of the dogs and
the dark sleigh would not be under-exposed.
However, all our troubles are not outdoors. For interiors there are other
problems to be tackled. Absence of good flexible lighting arrangements is a
big handicap. Both my wife and I thought it would be something of a novelty,
not only for our collection, but also for the ‘home folks' to get a few pictures
of our cabin home from the inside. Well, what could be nicer than, say, the
odd shot or two of some of our preparations for Ça commence drôlement à ressembler à Noël? Fine! We'd take
them when she had the stove all lined up with pots, pans and percolator and
so on. But NOT on Ça commence drôlement à ressembler à Noël Day! When you understand that our kitchen-bedroom-dining
room measures only 13 x 11 feet you will easily see why we didn't want to undertake
any photography while the actual cooking of the Dinner was in progress; we
could easily duplicate the lay-out next day. But I had quite a job on my hands
trying to get two legs of my tripod down on one side of the bed, and thrusting
the other down at the foot between the bed and a couple of water buckets, and
I almost had to stand on my head doing the necessary focussing. But it was
accomplished eventually though by that time I was perspiring quite freely,
and not in a very sweet humour. We had a little further trouble in hanging
the gas-lamp in the right place, and to light up the dark corner behind the
stove I used about four inches of the old stand-by, magnesium ribbon. I guessed
at an exposure of one second at f8 which gave me a good negative with little
blur in the figure. Several other shots made under similar conditions also
turned out fairly well. I had, on a previous occasion, tried flash-bulbs, setting
the shutter on TIME; opening the shutter, firing the bulb and closing the shutter
in quick succession. I had no luck; my flash-lamp refused to work promptly
on two separate occasions when I pressed the button, and when it finally did
go off, so did the bulb - into a hundred pieces This happened twice and made
me rather uneasy even though the glass didn't scatter much; but I didn't know
what it might do. The lamp , supplemented by the ribbon is much slower of course,
but it seems to work, and there is little danger.
Perhaps a word regarding the equipment I have used up here might not be out
of place. Such luxuries as flash-lamp synchronizers and coupled range-finders
haven't been acquired yet to pep up my collection of antiques; not because
I wouldn't like them, but -oh, well, they're quite expensive. Most of my work
is done with an old quarter-plate TRONA, now no longer on the market as far
as I know. This is fitted with a Zeiss Tessar f 4.5 lens in an old-style Compur
Shutter. The double-extension bellows is useful for copying and close-ups.
I have used with this a Zeiss clock-work Self-timer which has been extremely
useful as I occasionally like to get into the picture myself, and I am alone
a great deal on camera jaunts. This simple outfit has been a very dependable
companion over many hundreds of miles of travel by dog-team, canoe and pack-sack,
and though some of the corners are beginning to look a little worn I've had
the camera for ten years - yet I have never had the least trouble with anything
going wrong, and it has never been to the ‘repair shop'. Cold weather never
appears to affect that Compur shutter in the least. I was once the proud possessor
of a Reflex, but severe temperatures appeared to slow up the curtain shutter
when carried all day on a dog-team. Anyway, wha t did I want with shutter speeds
up to 1/1000 second; rarely anything moves that fast up here! So I got rid
of it. I also use occasionally a 5 x 7 View camera which I fitted with an old
f7.7 lens and shutter taken from a discarded 3a Kodak. I fitted this into a
panel myself and although it is only 6½ inches focal length yet I find
that it covers the 5 x 7 plate even at full aperture.
Yes, I'm still old-fashioned enough to use a tripod; and what's more I use
it whenever it is possible to do so. It's one of my most valued photographic
possessions and in spite of ten years' hard service, it seems to be as good
as ever; it has the revolving and tilting top, and there's never the least
danger of my old quarter-plate wobbling or vibrating in the stiffest breeze.
I have found a changing-bag a very useful accessory this winter in which to
load film-holders etc. , as I was compelled through lack of space to manage
without a darkroom. I use Cut-film almost exclusively for several reasons;
it is light and easy to carry; danger of breakage is almost nil, and it is
very economical. AGFA S.S. Panchromatic and also their S.B. Plenachrome have
given me excellent satisfaction for all general purposes. This winter, as I
have had to economize on space, I have used AGFA M.Q. tubes for both films
As there is no dealer in the Yukon carrying my supplies, as far as I am aware,
I plan on laying in sufficient stock in the Fall to last me until the following
May when navigation opens. There is no Parcel Post up here during the winter
months, and to pay first-class postage rates on material would make the prices
almost out of reach. Owing to the dryness of the climate here I have never
had any trouble with either film or paper deteriorating in any way, and I do
not remember that I ever had reason to discard anything, and there is little
or no waste.
But in spite of the severity of the climate, which is perhaps the biggest handicap
up here, I have found photography to be a most satisfying and interesting hobby,
and my own experiences go to prove that the lone enthusiast working near the
Arctic Circle can derive equally as much pleasure from it as the city worker.